“I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti.”
THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS
Jonathan Demme . 1990
When his agent first called him about the project, Anthony Hopkins asked: ”Is that a children’s story?”
After be all studios turned down the Thomas Harris novel, Gene Hackman snapped up the rights to be the first film he thought of directing… The book was highly cinematic, “the movie was just clicking in my mind.” It would star Michelle Pfeiffer as the young FBI agent, John Hurt or Robert Duvall as Hannibal the Cannibal and, busy enough behind the camera, Hackman would take the small role of Clarice’s FBI boss, Jack Crawford.
Ted Tally was the first writer on the job. “Hackman gave me his approval finally after a lot of discussion. He didn’t have much input. We only had meetings where I pitched my ideas. It was basically, go write the first draft. We didn’t talk much about it. He hadn’t decided whether he was going to also try to play Lecter, while directing it. He thought he might have to drop back to playing Crawford, the FBI boss. He did say, maybe Bobby will play Lecter, but I didn’t have the nerve to ask, Bobby who? Bobby Duvall? Bobby Redford? Bobby De Niro? He just assumed that I would know who Bobby was. And then he quit, while I was writing my first draft. He never called me. I just heard one day from my agent, Gene Hackman’s dropped out of the project. “
The legend says Hackman’s daughter read the book and said: “Daddy, you’re not making this movie.” Demme’s production designer, Kristie Zea, said much the same. She was shaken by the story. It gave her the creeps.
“You’re going to make a movie about a guy who skins women
and makes outfits out of them? Jonathan, what are you doing?
Are you crazy?”
Hackman was in the Oscarnight audience inside LA’s Shrine Civic Auditorium on March 9, 1989. He was nominated (again) for playing another FBI agent dealing with racism at its murderous worst in Mississippi Burning. Hackman kept seeing clips from Alan Parker’s film that night and realising that Lambswould be even more bleak and violent, he knew he could not hack it and he walked away…
“God bless Gene Hackman’s daughter, if that’s true, and that’s what I’ve always heard,” said Jonathan Demme during the film’s 25th anniversary year of 2016. .”God bless her!”
Demme was keen to pick up the pieces. “Oh my God, yes. I just knew it could be scary as hell, an incredible picture. Ted Tally did a remarkable job on the screenplay… I wanted to make a Psycho calibre fucking terrifying movie!” And he did. With close-ups, subjective camera and implying rather than actually showing, the absolute horrors of the tale. This was Demme’s finest hour (helped by an editing cut suggested by William Goldman).
Indeed, the film was so good it ruined his career. Apart from Philadelphia, 1993 , none of fhis later work had the same cinematic impact. (The Paris-made Truth About Charlie, 2002, and his re-tread of The Manchurian Candidate, 2003, just sucked). And he died in 2017.
Clarice Starling . Having had her Married To The Mob, Demme also saw Michelle as Clarice. She soon had second thoughts. Like Hackman, she was “unable to come to terms with the overpowering darkness of the piece.”
Becoming notorious for turning down excellent material (like Jodie Foster’s roles in Taxi Driver, The Accused) Debra Winger refused. Meg Ryan was next to drop out. “The script was great but the milieu scared me. Such a dark world.” Andie MacDowell “had a hard time with the subject matter.
“Those kind of movies disturb me, they terrify me.
I don’t want those images in my head.”
Demme claimed he saw 300 possible Clarices – including Australia Nicole Kidman, Brooke Smith, Madeleine Stowe and Emma Thompson. He then asked Smith, daughter of the top publciist Lois Smith, to put on weight to suit Catherine Martin, the senator’s daughter kidnapped by the serial killer known as Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine). Brooke said she had bad dreams before shooting the torture scene. “But when we started, it was cathartic. I screamed so much, it was like primal therapy.”
“Jodie was always in my mind,” Tally told Deadline Hollywood in 2016. “It was a no-brainer. She had just won an Academy Award for The Accused. She was the right age. She had the right intelligence to play somebody like that. I thought she was just a fabulous, fabulous actress, and she actually even called me while I was writing the first draft. We had never met, and she called me to campaign for the part. That was before Jonathan was on board. Jonathan initially wanted Michelle Pfeiffer… I thought she was a few years too old and just too beautiful. It’s too distracting. Would you believe that she would have the right toughness?”
Hannibal Lecter . Demme followed Michael Mann’s lead – he chose Brian Cox for the role in Manhunter, 1986 – and went British first. Kenneth Branagh, John Hurt, Jeremy Irons, Patrick Stewart did not gell. Thinking American meant Robert Duvall, Christopher Lloyd. Plus John Lithgow – who had been on Mann’s list for Lecter… then, Lektor. The studio wanted Robert De Niro or Dustin Hoffman.
Demme decided on Oscar-winner Louis Gossett Jr.
“It got very close,” recalled Lou. “Then they had
… about a black man as a cannibal!”
Demme’s next notion – naturally! – was Jack Nicholson. Then back to m ore Brits: Anthony Hopkins, Derek Jacobi and Daniel Day-Lewis. “They were determined to have a Brit for their villain – I’m not sure what this says about us,” related Jacobi in his autobiography, As Luck Would Have It. “Goodness knows how it would have turned out if I had played the part, but I would have been malevolent in a very different way. Tony has harder eyes than I have. He was wonderful.”
“But everybody wanted to play that part, gosh, from Dustin Hoffman to Morgan Freeman,” Demme told Deadline Hollywoood in 2016. “There was tremendous interest. Sean Connery was the only other person I thought could be amazing for this. Connery has that fierce intelligence and also that serious physicality. I love Tony Hopkins, but Sean Connery could be amazing. So to take the most commercial path, because Connery was flying very high at the time, we sent the script to Sean Connery first. Word came back shortly that he thought it was disgusting and wouldn’t dream of playing that part. So, great, now we can go to Tony Hopkins.”
And why? Because he projected “extreme intelligence, great humanity and compassion.” He also came up with an eerie voice a mix of Katharine Hepburn, Truman Capote and 2001’s HAL. Tony was on-screen for, maybe, 17 minutes – shortest ever performance winning a Best Actor Oscar?
Jack Crawford . Kenneth Branagh and Mickey Rourke were in the opening salvos for the FBI man. More keen on being Lecter, Ed Harris felt Jodie’s boss was not interesting enough. Michael Keaton was suggested but no, he only joined the FBI (as Agent Ray Nicolette) in both Jackie Brown and Out of Sight, a decade later. Scott Glenn inherited Crawford. Harris later played a FBI man in The Firm, 1993. “More interesting.” Well, more bald.His next role was a serial killer helping to solve a murder in Just Cause, 1994,m shot and like lit like Demme’s Lecter, said Chicago critic Roger Ebert. Ed’s co-star was… Sean Connery!
Roden . Anthony Heald was keen being Dr Frederick Chilton – but given Roden, instead. Or until a table reading for Jodie Foster in which he sat in for Hopkins, and so impressed Demme, he asked him to be Chilton, head of Lecter’s current home, the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane… and, indeed, Hannibal’s next target when he phones Clarice to say he’s having a friend for dinner. (Dan Butler became Roden). Heald later re-played one of Hopkins signature roles, Dr Frederick Treves, in a stage veson of The Elephant Man. Demme had told Hopkins that his Treves was the reason he wanted him as Lecter. “But,” said Tony, “Dr Treves was a good man” “So is Lecter,” said Demme, “just trapped in an insane mind.”
The film was a huge hit because of its gruesome timing, said author-criminologist Scott Bonn in Vanity Fair’s 30th anniversary essay by Tracy Moopre, in February, 2021. “It was the right story, the right talent, at the right time – at the peak of serial murder in the U.S.” Silence had opened in February 1991, two years after Ted Bundy was executed after owning to 30 murders of women and girls)) and five months before the cannibalistic Jeffrey Dahmer was caught (and eventually sentenced to 16 terms of life, before being killed by a fellow inmate of his Wisconsin prison). These killers, said Bonn, made Lecter and Buffalo Bill appear less like characters and more as real villains lurking among us. Possibly next to us in the cinema…
During the 1989 Oscarnight when Hackman made his fateful decision, he did not win anything – but Jodie Foster did. In 1992, shewon her second Oscar for the film Hackman let go. Hopkins won the third successive Oscar for a British actor after Daniel Day- Lewis and Jeremyh Irons (for My Left Foot and Reversal of Fortune). In all, Lambs won all five top Academy Awards (Actor, Actress, Adapted Script, Director, Picture) from seven nominations. No other movie has managed that since. There were a lot of wringing of hands that March 30 night in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.